The idea of a balloon that floats high up above Earth indefinitely is a tantalizing one. Solar power would allow such stratospheric balloons to operate like low-cost satellites at the edge of space, where they could provide communication in remote or disaster-hit area, follow hurricanes, or monitor pollution at sea. One day, they could even take tourists on near-space trips to see the curvature of the planet. Indeed, the original stratospheric balloons were flown by NASA in the 1950s, and the agency still uses them for science missions. And Project Loon, owned by Google's parent company Alphabet, successfully deployed such balloons to provide mobile communications in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
High above the annoyances of weather and commercial air traffic, the stratosphere could be a great place from which to beam down Internet connectivity to places with poor communications infrastructure. Alphabet and Facebook are both working on drones to operate 18 kilometers or more above Earth, and this year Alphabet will start using balloons at that altitude to serve mobile subscribers in Indonesia. But even the stratosphere, which at the equator starts at around 20 kilometers but varies by latitude and season, is within reach of Earth's regulators. To work at large scale, Alphabet and Facebook's schemes will need significant changes to national and international rules. "This is all somewhat uncharted territory," says Yael Maguire, engineering director at Facebook's connectivity lab, which is working on a drone called Aquila that has the wingspan of an airliner (see "Meet Facebook's Stratospheric Internet Drone").
Loon, the former Google X project and now independent Alphabet company, says it has built and deployed a new AI-powered navigation system that leverages reinforcement learning (RL) to steer balloons more accurately and efficiently through the stratosphere. Developed in cooperation with the Google AI team in Montreal, Loon said the new navigation system is capable of teaching itself how to navigate balloons better than the original balloon navigation system, which was built by human engineers over the last decade. During a head-to-head comparison of the human designed system and the reinforcement learning system, conducted over 39 days above the Pacific Ocean, Loon said the new navigation system kept a balloon over a defined location for longer periods of time while also using less power. The RL system also came up with complex navigational maneuvers that had not seen before. The reinforcement learning system is now live across Loon's fleet of stratospheric internet balloons, which are currently floating above Kenya in eastern Africa.
Google's parent Alphabet is set to beam internet to the remotest areas of the planet via high-altitude balloons. The firm has launched six balloons as part of its'Project Loon' that have managed to transfer data across a 620-mile (1,000km) area as part of a landmark test. A spokesperson from Loon, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet, said the stratospheric balloons rely on a single connection to the ground in Nevada. The test is Project Loon's latest as it heads towards its planned commercial launch of the service next year. Google's parent Alphabet is set to beam internet into the remotest areas of the planet as part of its'Project Loon' starting next year.
Alphabet has announced that Loon will soon provide its balloon-powered 4G internet service to several regions in Mozambique. The company has teamed with local carrier Vodacom to serve the Cabo Delgado and Niassa provinces, two vast regions that currently have spotty or no internet coverage. Loon will soon have services in two African nations, as it recently launched in Kenya to improve communications during the COVID-19 pandemic. Vodacom will deploy Loon's technology to provide 4G service with data, voice, SMS and USSD, Alphabet said. It will work for anyone with 4G-VoLTE and a SIM card, and users will connect as if to a regular cell tower.